Internet and social media
Social media and the internet can have both positive and negative effects on children and young people’s mental health. Schools play an important role in educating pupils on how to stay safe online.
Research into the impact of internet and social media use on the mental health of young people is lacking. In a 2020 report, the Royal College of Psychiatrists called for more detailed and extensive studies in this area.
We know that the internet and social media can impact both positively and negatively on a young person’s life and wellbeing.
For example, a 2019 review from the government’s Science and Technology Committee found that the majority of teenagers said that social media improved their relationships with their friends. However, the same report also highlights research stating that young people with a mental health disorder were more likely to use social media, and more likely to be on social media for longer.
Increase in internet and social media use by age
5-7 year olds
8-11 year olds
12-15 year olds
5% have a smartphone
35% have a smartphone
83% have a smartphone
67% go online for nearly 9.5 hours a week
93% go online for nearly 12.5 hours a week
99% go online for nearly 20.5 hours a week
4% have a social media account
18% have a social media account
69% have a social media account
Source: 2019 OECD Report, What do we know about children and technology?
Impact on mental health and wellbeing
Young people utilise social media for a number of reasons. Using social media can help some young people access support, receive reassurance, feel connected or manage social anxiety.
But for others, using social media can become compulsive and fuel unhealthy comparisons. It can expose them to bullying and see them becoming more isolated, which can lead to their mental health deteriorating.
- creates a sense of social support, connectedness and positive interaction, which can boost mental health
- helps to foster and sustain relationships with friends and family, especially those who live far away
- provides a way to make new friends and connections with peers who share similar interests or experiences
- helps some young people to be more open and honest with their friends about how they think and feel
- makes some young people feel supported and less alone during tough times, as they can read about other people’s similar experiences
- empowers young people with disabilities or communication needs through creating a sense of community and belonging
- helps children and young people to learn how to strengthen their mental health and keep themselves well
- provides easier access to informal and formal support – help that is available at different times of the day
- Provides a platform on which to be creative and have fun
Negative impacts and risks
There are potential risks that social media and the internet can have on children and young people’s mental health, which may also affect their ability to thrive and achieve. These include:
Children who use social media at night may not be getting enough sleep. This can not only impact on their learning at school, but a lack of sleep can also increase the risk of depression and anxiety. Children aged 5-16 need to get between 11 hours and 9 hours of sleep a night.
Accessing harmful or inappropriate content
Children may access content that is violent, racist, hateful or features pornographic material. Studies show that the majority of children and young people are more likely to initially stumble across pornography through targeted adverts or content, rather than intentionally searching for it. When they first accessed pornography, young people were most likely to report that they felt curious, but also shocked, confused or disgusted.
Grooming or online abuse
When interacting with others online, children and young people may not be aware of who they speaking to, or of that person’s intentions. Children and young people are at risk of being groomed online or of developing inappropriate relationships that can lead to stalking, harassment, threatening behaviour, sexual exploitation, engaging in sexual acts or being made to view content of a sexual act, among other things. NSPCC research reveals that more than one in seven children aged 11 to 18 have been asked to send sexual messages or images of themselves.
Children and young people may carry out or be exposed to bullying behaviour online. Like bullying offline, cyberbullying also increases a child’s risk of developing depression and lowered self-esteem. Research has found that children and young people who experience cyberbullying are twice as likely to self-harm.
In a survey conducted by the Mental Health Foundation, 40% of young people (26% of boys and 54% of girls) said that images on social media had made them worry in relation to their body image.
Children and young people may compare themselves to celebrities, bloggers or people they are inspired by and begin to filter or manipulate images of themselves to conform to “body ideals” that are often promoted online.
Body dysmorphia disorder is when a child or young person persistently worries about aspects of their body or how they look – this can have a huge impact on their life.
What schools and further education settings can do
If you are at all concerned about a child or young person, you should always speak to your designated safeguarding lead as a matter of priority. They will be able to advise on suitable next steps, and speaking to them about any concerns should always be the first action you take, ahead of any of the suggestions on this page.
As children and young people spend an increasing proportion of their time online, education settings have an important role to play in helping pupils to use the internet in a safe, responsible and positive way. Schools and colleges will often use digital devices as a tool for learning, so it’s essential for them to teach children and young people about managing any risks online.
Search our resource library for tips, activities and lesson plans on how to keep children safe online and build their digital resilience.
There are lots of things that schools and colleges can do – here are a few approaches:
- training school/college staff in online risks and safety issues, and on how to protect and support children and young people online. This can include how to notice when a young person feels emotionally unsafe online.
- working with pupils to develop effective digital safety skills, policies and procedures to help children and young people stay safe online both inside and outside of the education setting
- talking openly about cyberbullying to help children and young people understand what behaviour is not acceptable online, what the consequences are for violating these rules, and how they might report cyberbullying
- working with and informing parents and carers on how they can reduce their child’s exposure to online risks
- encouraging peer support where pupils are trained and supervised to offer their peers advice on how to stay safe online. This Anna Freud Centre resource shares advice for young people on how to support a friend who may be having difficulties with their mental health
- encouraging pupils to track how much time that they are spending online and to get a good night’s sleep and switch off their phone an hour before they go to bed. This can include helping pupils to stagger and slowly reduce the time that they spend online and increase the balance with non-online activities
- encouraging pupils to reflect on their use of social media – how they feel before they use it and how they feel afterwards. If they notice that it is having a negative effect on their emotions and behaviours, encourage them to review the people or accounts that they are engaging with, or speak to someone that they trust
- primary schools should focus on strengthening children’s digital safety prior to transitioning to secondary school.
Online counselling and support services
If a child feels worried, unsafe or needs to chat to someone, refer them to Childline where they can chat to a counsellor over the phone (0800 1111) or online. Older children may prefer to contact The Mix on 0808 808 4994 or online. You can also view our resource library for details of other more specialist helpline services.
NetAware is a helpful platform to signpost parents and carers to. This website reviews the most popular apps, games and social media platforms that children use, and provides useful information and advice on any potential risks to be aware of.